Kenyon College

A Review of the 2013 do it Exhibition


Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the groundbreaking conceptual art exhibition do it, Kenyon College’s Gund Gallery asks viewers to come out and play. Rather than the expected static object designed to be passively observed, the show consists of a series of participatory, instructional scripts. If followed, the scripts enable viewers to produce objects, to create environments, and to experience the unexpected.

The concept of the instructional script as art extends from Duchamp to the Fluxus movement of the 1960’s to the present. do it was designed to be an ever-evolving, do-it-yourself extravaganza of art experiences. Conceived in 1993 by Swiss curator, historian and critic Hans-Ulrich Obrist – in collaboration with artists Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier – the three imagined an ever-evolving, viewer centric exhibition. Using a playbook concocted by artist provocateurs, curators could select any number of participatory projects that would allow viewers to become active art producers.

At inception, Obrist solicited and later circulated project instructions from thirteen artists. To date, the show has been staged more than 50 times using scripts from at least 300 artists and the engagement of countless willing participants. The current instruction manual Do It: the Compendium lists more than 200 projects. Orchestrating a selection ranging from the meditative to the comically absurd, Gund Gallery’s exhibition consists of more than 30 Do It projects. Included are scripts by Louise Bourgeois, Gilbert and George, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Alison Knowles, Sol Lewitt, David Lynch, Bruce Nauman, Yoko Ono, and Erwin Wurm.

An elaborate game subverting economic interests, notions of authorship, and power structures between institution, artist and viewer, the show–at first blush–appears to be an act of rebellion. After all, it undermines the status quo and ultimately democratizes art production and consumption.

Many projects ask participants to consider their public and private selves. Perception of the self and others is always based on context. Annette Messager asks participants to consider their own signature. In her project description, she makes the case that at birth our names “will characterize us from the beginning to the end of our life.” After writing down all possible combinations of one’s signature, participants are instructed to frame and hang their work. Placed in a new context, a simple signature becomes something audaciousness and presumptuous.

Several scripts lead participants to reflect on the meaning of artifact and archive. Cultural institutions often define how we understand the world around us. Nicolas Paris invites actors to create a “portable museum.” The instructions seem simple enough. “Go outside and pick up as many objects as attract you. Come back inside and arrange them either by shape, size, or color or new and used.” An example on display consists of an array of disparate objects – including a record album, a stuffed hedgehog toy, a science metal, and a photograph of a woman at an archeological dig. Carefully placed in the museum case, the objects are curiously connected and disconnected. By association, stories emerge from the artifacts that seem true enough but are surely fictions.

Other artist instructions lead to an engagement with the body and our emotional relationships to each other. Akin to meditation, Bruce Nauman’s Body Pressure asks participants to press their bodies against a wall. With instructions that read like a repeating mantra, the action while absurd is surprisingly comforting. A projected image of past participants resembles a vertical yoga class. The action appears to be a method for overcoming public and private obstacles. Yet, with a stark jolt of reality, Nauman concludes with, “this may become a very erotic experience.”

Participation in do it demands a suspension of disbelief and suspicion. Forget about looking foolish. It turns out that play is serious business.

Christopher Yates
Associate Director, Gund Gallery